Then We Came To The End of Another Semester
By Michael Nye
The title for this blog post borrows from the opening sentence of Don DeLillo’s novel Americana. The full sentence is “Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year.” Given that it is the first sentence of a novel, the reader hasn’t come to the end of anything, but to the beginning. And, as opening sentences go, that certainly gives the reader a strong sense of the voice of boredom and restlessness at the center of protagonist David Bell.
However, what I’m after here is not boredom or restlessness (there remains plenty to do during the month of May) but to emphasis that for my students, they’ve merely concluded chapter one.
When I was an undergraduate at Ohio State, I had no idea what the writing world looked like or what my school had to offer. One of my professors, Lee K. Abbott, required me to subscribe to one of four journals by bringing him an unsealed envelope with a check written out to the journal of my choice (I don’t remember what the four were, but two were definitely Epoch and Boulevard. I choose Boulevard. Why? No idea). If Boulevard made any impression on me, I don’t remember it. I asked my various writing professors about MFA programs and how to get into one and why to go. I didn’t ask my professors about book publishing not because I didn’t know what to ask but because publishing as an industry worth knowing something about was a concept that had yet to enter my brain. All I knew was that I was going to write a Great American Novel … only I didn’t have a germ of an idea or any concept of how to write a novel or what pitfalls were out there for an emerging writer.
By comparison, my students are light years ahead of where I was at the same point in my career. This semester, each intern read approximately 300 manuscripts from her/his peers, and saw what contemporary writers are doing with poetry and the short form. They read five separate literary journals, and had the chance to talk via Skype with four of the magazine editors about their publication, their writing, and anything else under the sun. They discovered the cost of running a literary magazine, an individual issue of TMR, submission systems, and what tools are out there to disseminate the work we publish. All the while, my students were continuing to take their creative writing workshops and literature classes.
Last week, I asked if there was anything we hadn’t covered this semester that they wanted to know. They responded with silence. To jar their memory, I walked through everything my class covered in the previous fifteen weeks, then asked again if there was anything I hadn’t covered that they wanted to know. Again, silence. Okay, then. I guess I answered all the questions!
Of course, this isn’t true. The questions they have are probably of two types: personal, about their own career in the arts and not something they want to ask in front of everyone; or, they are questions that they don’t know they have yet (“unknown unknowns”) and won’t come to them the week before final exams.
Like any other field, there is a ton of turnover at a literary magazine. Our graduate editors and interns leave on a regular basis. They go to MFA programs. They go teach abroad. They go to New York and work in publishing. But, if I was to look back at my first publishing class in 2011, and before that, any of the internship classes from the previous ten or fifteen or twenty years, I would guess that majority of them are not writing and not working in publishing. They are almost certainly doing something else.
I don’t have anything useful to say about Great Big Life Questions. Like most people, my “advice” is really just repackaged anecdotes of what I did with my life. That’s not really useful to my students. Nothing really prepares you for that post-college shift, when you discover people who get great jobs before you do, when people start families, buy houses, fall into alcoholism, die too young, and all those other really messy things that happen in your twenties.
What I hope my students have taken from my class are the foundation tools to go in whatever direction they want to go in writing and publishing. I hope that in my class, and in their other writing or literature classes, they’ve made friendships that they will have (and lean on more than once) for the rest of their lives. I hope that they understand that more than any other time, the publishing world is deeply interconnected, and you never know who you’re going to come across that will have a meaningful role in your work.
Your novel, however you define it, is just beginning. Let’s dive in.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Cash Rules Everything Around Me (And Silkworms)
By Michael Nye
How much does it cost to produce a literary magazine?
This question was at the core of last week’s class. I wanted to address this on a number of levels: what is the cost of one print copy, what is the cost of one (current) print run with our subscription numbers, and what is the cost of running TMR over the course of a year?
Not all students love this particular class. More than one had difficulty keeping eyes open, there were plenty of yawns, and even one headsnapper (digression: I did the headsnapper at the very first literary reading I ever went to. My Beginning Writing Fiction instructor, Mary Tabor, required us to go to three during the ten week quarter. The first one was poetry, and I had zero interest. So, yup, the headsnapper: falling asleep, eyes close, head goes backward, chin toward the ceiling, and then, boom!, wake up!, snapping my head back down. Oh, and the poet? She definitely noticed and stared daggers through my skull). Those of us in the humanities tend to have no interest in (or no ability with) money.
In small presses and literary magazines, the disconnect between writers and editors often comes down to money. Editors, whether new to publishing or veterans, become aware of the cost of everything. And, I do mean everything: there are the big costs like printing and distribution, but there are also all the small costs, such as staples and stamps to name just a few, and when the bill collector comes ’round, litmag publishers start attentively scouring the line-item breakdown of costs looking for a way to save a dollar or two. Writers, who paid little for their work, don’t appreciate the constant reminders to subscribe, donate, and buy magazines. Also, they don’t particularly like having their work turned down for publication.
The lack of money is the biggest killer of literary magazines. Making my students aware of it is critical.
Also, production costs are an excellent argument for online publications. When they were first launched, online literary magazines struggled for respect. To an extent, they still do. Now that we all read online content on a daily basis, readers embrace magazines like Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, Kill Author, Exquisite Corpse, and Barcelona Review, as well as magazines that do a regular mixture of print and online content, such as Gigantic, Hobart, and PANK.
Still: while new publishers might embrace the “content is king” idea, it seems that reputation, a logical development, from good content, still drives the literary magazine market.
It wasn’t a part of my class, but on Thursday, Karen Russell was on campus and read from her work. At the beginning of the semester, I hand out a syllabus that includes dates and locations for readings throughout Columbia. The dates are subject to change, such as Colson Whitehead’s reading (due to a snowstorm), and I announce readings during our production meeting on Tuesdays. I don’t make it to every reading every week—who does?—but I do stay aware of which interns make it to the events.
The majority of my class made it to Russell’s reading. The room was packed: people stood along the back wall, extra rows of chairs were brought in, and people still had to sit in the aisles. There was even a group of people who drove in from Kansas City.
Russell was terrific. She read parts of her new novella, Sleep Donation, and her story “Reeling for the Empire” then took a few questions. She was intelligent and charming, particularly her anecdote about her sister wondering why sisters always died in Karen’s stories. The MU bookstore showed up (they don’t always do that) to sell copies of her book and if the line was any indication, they hustled a few copies out the door.
At readings, an author almost always has copies of her book for sale; often, this is ignored by the audience. Russell’s work is, of course, excellent, but most authors sell their books at readings based on the strength of their interaction with the audience. I’ve never seen an author sweat and stammer through a reading and then have two hundred listeners clamor to buy the book.
Publishing a book is no longer enough: the author too has to be part of the package, The Platform, willing to go out in public, give readings, make small talk, be friendly, be nice, etc. It’s exhausting. On Friday, Marilynne Robinson was at Mizzou. But her event was invitation only, kept small. Word is that she is a bit shy and doesn’t like doing public events. Which is her prerogative. Though, does she really need to do public events anymore if she doesn’t want to? So, then, why do them at all? And if you do them, and they are invitation only, doesn’t that make literature seem closed off, exclusive, elitist?
Just questions there, no concrete answers.
I’d prefer to keep my publishing class idealistic: we “publish the best work” and we do things only because “art is good.” But that wouldn’t prepare them for the work they have to do after they leave my class. Publishing, whether you are out front or in the back room, has all kinds of mundane facets that need to be recognized and taught. Knowing how it’s made doesn’t make bratwurst any less delicious.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Going Astray from the Straight Road
By Michael Nye
Last week, my class talked with Cheston Knapp, the managing editor of Tin House. One of the only downsides of these Skype conversations is that the room gets incredibly hot. What we do is Skype through my laptop and hook it up to a projector, which puts the image of our out-of-town editor on a large pulldown presentation screen so that my class can see the editor. I crank the volume on the speakers up, and everyone in the room can hear and see the editor just fine. The editor, unfortunately, only gets my American Bulldog in a Tie face on the monitor rather than the entire class (after the first thirty minutes, students sit down in front of the monitor to ask their questions), so it’s not perfect, but it always goes pretty well nonetheless.
Anyway, if you’ve been reading my Internship in Publishing blog this year, you know the drill by now: because I ask the editors to speak candidly about their publishing work, I’m not going to divulge too much of what they say here. But there is one really important thing that Cheston shared that I want to talk about: his career path.
Cheston’s route to Tin House was a bit accidental. He graduated from William & Mary in 2004, stayed in Virginia for a year, then moved to Portland because he had a “oh, why not?” thought, and started interning at Tin House. None of this is a trade secret—a quick Google search will tell you this—but Cheston went into more detail about the How.
My path to TMR was a similar bit of organized confusion, one that I’ve written about in this space before. With it now being April, and the semester coming to a close, and graduation right around the corner for some of my students, this has been on my mind quite a bit. Like me, Cheston had a general idea of, somehow, writing, got more involved in publishing, and stayed with it, not because he’s climbing a career path, but because it seemed like fun, so, hey, why not?
A large part of the Internship in Publishing class is mentorship. Of course, there is is the work: reading manuscripts, walking through the stages of production of the magazine, etc. But an internship is, by definition, supposed to be on-the-job training in your field: what direction do I want my students to go? Writing, editing, and publishing (as much as these three fields can be separated) can be, though not necessarily, very different paths.
Most career advice seems to be “This is what I did, so you should too!” I took three years off between undergraduate and graduate school, so I think my students should, too. I earned an MFA, so a writer should earn an MFA. I didn’t plan on working for a literary magazine, so my students shouldn’t plan too either. Of course, there is the idea that the best advice is to not give any (that’s deep, yo!), but even implicitly, I think that how I got to TMR often seems to be an endorsement of that plan. And, more than once, I wonder if this is terrible advice for my students.
In all things writing related, the last fifteen years has been chaotic. Perhaps it is always this way. The new century has seen a massive shift toward big publishing consolidation, the rise of digital publishing and the alt-lit scene. MFA programs are now a bubble, like technology in 2001 and housing in 2008. And my students are more knowledgeable and sophisticated about these changes than I had been when I was leaving college.
No one does it your way. Not that they shouldn’t or won’t try to. There are probably some general wise moves to make—don’t piss everyone off, write more than once a month, read some books, and so forth—there isn’t one correct way to get wherever it is you’d like to end up. The lack of set rules may be a bit terrifying, especially those first steps in any given direction outside of school. But they’re crucial steps. This really just boils down to accepting risk. The world doesn’t have an outstanding road map for a young writer, but when you’re fully engaged in your own work, you’re always going to be able to make your mark. It’s nothing to fear, especially when taking a few steps off the beaten path is, always, inevitable.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
On Gender Bias in Publishing, Editing, and Writing
By Michael Nye
While I doubt you are concerned about regularly scheduled programming with this semester’s Monday blog post, you probably did notice that I didn’t post last week. I bumped myself from Monday to give contest editor Mike Petrik the opportunity to talk more about our Audio Competition (which is now closed)(but our Editors’ Prize is now open!) so you might be wondering what happened in class during the eighth week.
Week 8 was a conversation with the founder and editor of Hobart, Aaron Burch. I promise all the editors that I won’t reveal anything they say to my students, but I might come back, in time, to Aaron’s use of the word “legitimate.”
So far this semester, my class has spent plenty of time kinda/sorta outside the classroom. We’ve had two Skype conversations with editors of other literary magazines, a visit from the CIO of the Dish Network, and a snow day. When class only meets once per week, that’s a lot of time devoted to outside talk. During the week, when the interns are in for their office hours, I go around and say hello, ask how they are, what they’re working on, and so forth. Naturally, my rapport with some students is better than with others, but it’s not a substitute for the type of discussion that, in theory, a good publishing class should have.
And last week we talked about a big subject: VIDA and gender bias in publishing.
My class has fifteen students. Three are graduate students, and all three are women. I have twelve undergraduates: seven women, five men (quick digression: over the last five years that I’ve been with TMR, we generally have more women interested in the publishing class than men. I couldn’t tell you the exact ratio, but I’d guess 70/30).
I started by simply asking, who’s heard of VIDA?, and only four hands went up. I walked through a very quick, very basic, history of VIDA, an organization that was started by Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu. VIDA is mostly known for The Count, which is released every February, but that’s not all that the organization does. VIDA is all a website for essays about all sorts of topics related to women in publishing, editing, and writing, and a forum for writers who need support outside of the spotlight.
The VIDA Count had primarily focused on the “major” magazines and book review outlets: The Atlantic, Harper’s, New York Review of Books, New Yorker, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, as well as the literary magazines Tin House, Paris Review, and Boston Review. A few weeks ago, a former student of mine stopped by my office, and somehow, VIDA came up. She told me that the new VIDA count was coming out soon and I said, yeah, but they don’t look at literary magazines like TMR.
Only … this year, they did! Along with the larger publications they already look at, VIDA expanded its scope and examined twenty-four literary magazines, including TMR, Colorado Review, Normal School, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Review, among many others.
How did TMR do? According to the VIDA pie chart above, we published 57 women and 54 men.
I decided to look at our 2013 numbers and make a comparison to see if the numbers were the same. Not that I doubted the VIDA numbers, I was just curious about methodology and if the figures would match. My numbers were slightly different: I found we published 61 women and 54 men. I’ll get to the difference in a moment.
One of the keys to understanding how this works with TMR should start with our poetry. The breakdown of fiction, book reviews, and book reviewers is pretty straighforward. But with our poetry, we publish poetry features: this means a minimum of three poems per poet, no matter what. Often, we publish more than three (in our summer issue, we published four by Rose McLarney and five by Jim May; in our winter issue, we published seven by Michelle Boisseau). Should this be examined and broken down with more scrutiny?
VIDA also puts several items into nonfiction. According to The Count, we published six women and twelve men in this category. This nonfiction count includes (I think) essays, art features, and the forewords, but I’m truthfully not entirely sure. What I do know is that of the unsolicited, individual essays that TMR published in 2013, only two of the nine were by women. That’s a problem, and that’s on us.
The difference in my numbers and VIDA was in poetry. VIDA considered the series of Claudia Emerson’s poems as one poem, rather than six separate poems. The poems we published from the series are numerated: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9. My guess is that VIDA went by the Table of Contents rather than looking at the poems, but this doesn’t drastically change the end results one way or the other.
I would like to see VIDA separate interviews into its own category. Interviews are a tremendous amount of space in our pages, roughly four thousand words. We also have quite a bit of control of our interview content: we solicit freelancers for interviews, so we have men and women we contact directly, and while the interviewees are entirely up to the freelancer to pitch to us (on spec), we do have the ability to suggest who is a better candidate than another. We are less interested in a first book by a person you went to graduate school with compared to, say, a writer with three or four books.
Further, an interview does suggest “This writer matters.” Seeing that we’ve interviewed Karen Russell, or Sheila Heti, or Dorothea Lasky, or Jo Ann Beard, does make a claim about the value of their work and cultural cache in contemporary literature. While VIDA doesn’t weigh one category more than any other (I can easily imagine the quantitative and qualitative headache that would become) at least separating the category seems like a small but important nod to the purpose of interviewing women authors.
What did my class think of all this?
A concern raised by more than one student (male and female) was pretty straightforward: who cares about the author if the work is good? Shouldn’t the criteria simple be “this is good work”? Aren’t we just creating quotas?
No, I don’t think we are. We receive over ten thousand submissions per year. Of those, we publish forty. Is there really a difference between no. 40 and no. 41? Probably not. Do we receive, say, one hundred submissions that deserve to be published? Absolutely. Our aim is to publish the best writing that we can … but “best” is a nebulous criteria and is not the only thing that we do.
We also teach. We’re at a major state university, and we offer a class in publishing, training future writers and editors. That’s a factor.
Our table of contents doesn’t just list names. It also has author photos. What are we saying if a reader opens our magazine and sees only white male faces on the page?
Our submissions aren’t blind, and I don’t know a reader that doesn’t read the cover letter. Do we have expectations of what is masculine or feminine in literature? During a late-semester workshop in one of my creative writing classes, the story under discussion irritated one of my female students. Paraphrasing, she said “Girls don’t wear white sundresses all the time.” The comment got a laugh, but it also pointed out the perceptions of what writers, especially those still learning the craft, perceive as male or female.
Another thing that literary magazines do (and this will sound snotty) is publish what isn’t getting published by the bigger magazines. Avant-garde, and all that. And if women aren’t being recognized and published in larger magazines, then part of what literary magazines do is to go the other way: publish and champion women writers.
My class was, to my surprise, chatty about VIDA and gender bias, and it wasn’t split right down gender lines in my class, either. They aren’t entirely sure what to think of the subject. They aren’t sure how to approach it. How do we know, they ask, if we’ve done enough? What do we need to do?
There are several things that matter. First, the composition of a magazine’s staff. Of our five senior staffers, three are women; four of our seven graduate editors are women; and eleven of our fifteen interns are women. Second, we have to consider a literary magazine in its entirety, not just as individual pieces. If we’ve accepted seventy percent of the content for an upcoming issue, looking at the gender breakdown, and seeing which way we are leaning, matters. Third, we have to encourage the writers whose work we turn down (which, rather obviously, is most of them) to send work to us again. Our submitters can’t feel shut out. The extra time it takes to write a personalized rejection and say “we want to see more from you” makes a huge difference, something our interns and staff are doing already.
There’s more—much more—to say on this, but I’m getting close to two thousand words already, and, hey, that’s a long blog post. VIDA’s work is clearly not done, but the work they’ve done as an organization in the past five years has been tremendous. Still, they need help, whether you’re a reader, editor, or writer. One simple way? Support VIDA!
Last thing, then I’m off. I wasn’t entirely sure how this conversation would go with my students. Not that I was worried, exactly, more that talking with students individually is not the same as talking with a group, and so I was prepared to do a lot more answering than questioning. But it was unnecessary. My students were thoughtful, inquisitive, and patient for the hour plus that we talked about gender bias, and this was, by far, the best class we have all semester long. So, a big Kudos and Thanks to them for making the class terrific.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
The Postman Always Rings Twice
By Michael Nye
Last week, we held our first class since the AWP Conference, which I wrote about last Monday. Several of our staffers were in Seattle, so the offices were a little quiet, though there was plenty of work to be done. The frequently repeated line from AWP was “We read year round” so we were sifting through stories, poems, and essays trying to finalize the summer issue and load up the fall issue. The work never ends. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
In class last week, we focused on submissions to the magazine. First, we talked about our submission system; second, we talked about how and where we receive our submissions and the fact that we charge for online submissions.
For years, TMR had a custom online submission system. We’ve taken down all the old pages, so I couldn’t walk my class through it, but, in memory, it went through something like twelve pages (really) and three or four different URLs. I was impressed anyone every submitted that way! Then, the uploaded manuscript was put in an Outlook Inbox that was accessible by the senior staff, graduate editors, and interns. There were several subfolders for each class, and on Wednesdays, everyone received a fresh batch of reading material.
The problem with this system is obvious: it’s not very secure and difficult to track the path of a submission. It worked for us—we had been using it for ten years, roughly—but it wasn’t the best way to keep track of our writers’ work. So we looked at submission management systems and made the change that best suited TMR.
We went with Submission Manager, Devin Emke’s program that is recommended by CLMP. Though my students use it all the time, they hadn’t seen the back end, so I walked through what I can do as an administrator: track a submission, run reports, mailing information, all kinds of really useful stuff that makes the magazine run more efficiently. We also looked at Submittable and Tell It Slant, two other programs we considered; the former is very popular and used by many other excellent literary magazines.
For the second half of class, we talked about online submission fees. TMR charges $3 for online submissions; postal submissions remain free and always will be. I asked the class what they thought of this, and most of them, knowing full well that TMR already has this fee in place, initially said, yeah sure, no big deal.
Finally, someone said, (paraphrasing) “I don’t submit to magazines that charge an online submission fee. I can always send it somewhere else” and we were off and running. Here are some quick questions that were (or should have been) posed to the class:
Do you find online submission fees to be ethical? Just because something can be a revenue stream for a literary magazine doesn’t mean it should be.
Is the terminology important (reading fee, submission fee, convenience fee, etc.)? Branding matters more than one might think: calling something a “reading fee” is different from an “online submission fee” in the minds of many, even if the end result is essentially the same.
What is the cost of a paper submission? Add it up. Twenty page story. Envelopes. Postage, on both the submission and the SASE. Time, getting to the post office, which might also be measured in gas for your car. The numbers are about the same …
Should the fee be different for poetry? But not necessarily for poetry, which can be stuffed in a #10 envelope.
Should writers get more for their money, such as a more detailed critique? It’s a fair question. If you spend money on an online submission, one might argue that the editors should spend more time with the manuscript. This is probably a misguided way of looking at things—there’s a worldview of spending money that entitles you to something that is disturbing (read: I cough up college tuition; therefore, I deserve a college degree because I paid money)—but if that’s the worldview we live in, how does a magazine prepare for it?
Do we spend enough time with each submission? It’s very easy for an editor at any magazine, not just ours, to look at the stack of submissions and fire through them quickly. Sven Birkets of AGNI once wrote that he only looks at the first page before deciding do proceed (I think this was in an editor’s foreword in an issue of AGNI, but I can’t find a link).
Is it solely a business transaction? After all, literary magazines are in a strange situation: we don’t have a magazine without unsolicited manuscripts. And, many of our submitters are our readers.
Other questions on my mind included the following: What do you think about waiving online fees for subscribers? Are writers our “customers/consumers”? Is there even a distinction? What business are literary magazines in? Why, if there is an explosion of MFA programs, and consequently writers, is there little to no financial support for literary journals? Must TMR or any other literary journal charge fees? Should submission fees come with some sort of incentive: a quicker response time, a more detailed critique, or something else?
It’s not a perfect or complete list of questions, but for my students, this is the first time they’ve been asked to consider online submission fees in-depth. It’s far too easy to say “Oh, well, we’ve always done it this way” without asking why it’s always been done this way. Maybe it wasn’t the most groundbreaking discussion in history, but when it comes to literary magazines, there isn’t any one right or required way to publish literature. And if that leads to students asking “Why?” or (maybe even better) “Why not?” in the future, then the discussion took us in the right direction.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Whatever Happened to Max Headroom?
By Michael Nye
This past Tuesday was my class’s first of four Skype conversations with a literary magazine editor. Since we’re in Columbia, Missouri, rather than New York or Chicago, technology is the best way for my students to get exposure to a magazine culture other than The Missouri Review. Last week, we were joined by Karyna McGlynn and Zachary Martin, the managing editor and editor, respectively, of Gulf Coast.
Gulf Coast is the literary magazine based at the University of Houston. The magazine is approximately thirty years old, started by Donald Barthleme, and is currently entirely run by the PhD students at UH. Along with being a true miscellany (publishing fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and book reviews), Gulf Coast also has a commitment to visual art, and the magazine will always publish two visual artists. GC is biannual, thicker than TMR, and has a current cover that has created a polarizing response.
Why did I want my class to talk to Gulf Coast? First, I wanted them to speak to Karyna. I make sure that several editors that my class speaks to are women; in the past semesters, my class has Skyped with Andrea Martucci (formerly of Ploughshares), Roxane Gay (PANK), Cara Adams (formerly of Southern Review), Stephanie G’Schwind (Colorado Review), Sophie Beck (The Normal School), Marianne Kunkel (Prairie Schooner) and Halimah Marcus (Electric Literature). Second, I wanted to speak to a magazine run by students. Third, Karyna is a poet, giving my students a chance to ask questions about the writing life.
I can’t publicly repeat anything that Karyna told the class. One of the things I promise the editors that Skype with my class is that their conversation remains private. Not that she divulged any amazing secrets, like, you know, Mary Gaitskill is actually a Soviet spy or anything like that (besides: everyone already knows that …) but when I tell our virtual visitors that they can speak to our class off the record, I mean it.
Each of my students prepared three questions in advance. These questions could be on any topic relevant to writing, publishing, or editing. I set up a projector and laptop, so my students can see my screen (and, consequently, Karyna) easily on a pull-down screen; the disadvantage is that Karyna can only see the person directly in front of the monitor. For the first thirty minutes, unfortunately for Karyna, that was me. The next thirty minutes, I turn it over to the students to ask their questions. With fourteen students in the class, there isn’t enough time to ask forty-two questions; further, what they want to know, what they might ask, shifts based on my dialogue with Karyna. It’s a little awkward waiting for someone to get in the chair, but, hey, the setup isn’t perfect. The whole thing takes an hour, though we were chatty and ran over by about fifteen minutes. Karyna and Zach didn’t seem to mind.
One of the exciting things is also one of the scariest things about publishing: there are no rules. When I say “publishing” here, I mean all of it: writer, editor, publisher, and even non-profit work (say, the wonderful Arizona Poetry Center). Many of my students, if they are honest, only have a vague idea of what they want to do. And, in universities now, humanities students desire a specific road map (do this, then do this, then do this…) to get where they are going. While saying so may reveal big dreams and lots of ego—say, being a famous writer with Big Important Books that Say Something, or being a New York editor with a corner office in Manhattan that looks like something out of a Nora Ephron movie—having those wishes is a good thing. Aim big, and all that. So it’s important for TMR to point out how different that imagined landscape is from reality.
With publishing becoming such a diverse field, and the opportunities going in so many different directions, one of the things I hope to offer that will be useful to everyone is exposure. Getting access to these four editors, seeing what a magazine other than TMR looks like from the inside, should be, in theory, beneficial. We’ll see how it all turns out.
p.s. Yes, I know the image at the top of this post is Eminem not Max Headroom, but, listen, I already make tons of pop culture references from the 80s and 90s that my students don’t understand. Throw me a bone here, okay?
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Consumer Bandwidth; Or, The Writer’s Emotional State
By Michael Nye
A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away … well, actually, it was just 1985. Back to the Future and all that. At the time, The Missouri Review was housed in the Arts and Science building, several blocks east of our current location in McReynolds Hall. A young man, Mike McClaskey, was earning his Masters in English and contemplating pursuing a PhD in literature. He had a long conversation with Speer Morgan about whether or not this was a good idea. Shortly after graduation, Mike left Mizzou and went into the technology field, spending twelve years with Perot Systems, before ending up at some company called DISH Network. You might have heard of it.
Mike has always been a generous support of TMR. This year, he and his wife Janet agreed to fund two new internships, which began in August 2013. These internships will provide assistance to students and post-docs who will be working to support the technology initiatives of The Missouri Review.
Mike is now a senior vice president and chief information officer with DISH, and he frequently returns to Mizzou to recruit students, from all over campus, to come work for DISH in a variety of areas: human resources generalists, information technology, analytics, and so forth. With approximately twenty-four thousand employees, DISH has lots of ground to cover.
What, you might ask, does this have to do with interning in publishing?
When I graduated from Ohio State in 2000, I knew two things: I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to leave Ohio. Anything beyond those two concerns (or even, really, how to achieve concern #1) didn’t enter my mind. When compared to today’s frequent and lousy news about tenure-track employment and the state of the humanities, my goals seem relatively quaint. While our editor-in-chief, Speer Morgan, hasn’t exactly told students not to bother with academia, he has emphasized that we need to consider areas other than study at an university. Speer asked Mike to come talk to my class, and Mike generously took the time to showcase what some of those other areas might be for graduating seniors.
Toward the end of this week, one of the second-semester interns (who are recognized as “Advisors” on our masthead) asked me how I keep up with what’s going on in publishing. I had just come down to the main conference room to get coffee, and the intern was reading manuscripts, and we fell into a natural conversation about how to not get overwhelmed by all of it: the endless number of submissions, the three hundred thousand books published in English every year, and how this shapes and shifts one’s own writing.
I have an answer that I think is pretty good. Reading manuscripts at a literary journal is an excellent way of seeing, in the here and now, what your contemporaries are writing. Say what you will about the New Yorker, but subscribing and reading their fiction shows what the heavyweights in contemporary literature are doing and—factually, if a bit cynically–showcases the work of a novel that has just been published or is forthcoming within a few months. Reading the Books section of Entertainment Weekly. Knocking out the core books in The Canon, various -isms aside, gives a writer a needed foundation in literature. There’s also websites such as The Millions and The Awl, and following writers, publishers, editors, and agents on Twitter.
I also think this answer lacks something useful.
Take a look at that paragraph again: that is a ton to ask anyone to do. That’s not just seeing what’s going on (“Oh, Meg Wolitzer published a new novel…”) but that’s asking someone to find, read, and absorb all that writing, which can easily feel less like a love of reading and writing but the drudgery of keeping up with the Joneses.
And it doesn’t even address one’s writing. That’s just keeping up with other people’s writing.
I think my student’s question came from a place of uncertainty. And I know that for me, that place of uncertainty creates an anxiety that never goes away. I didn’t experience these feelings when I was an undergraduate because I didn’t know any better. It started to creep in during graduate school, and now that we’re all connected online all the time, it’s impossible not to feel pressure to Do Something Big. Or, at least, the pressure to not feel small, to not feel inconsequential. One of the (many) criticisms of the online world is the way it puts rose-colored glasses on everything. I’m sure such thoughts on Facebook and Instagram as narcissism and self-loathing are not originally to you; book reviews, regardless of medium, are filled with general praise for all writers and all their books, as if they are the grown-up children of Lake Wobegon. In the online world, this is, of course, counterbalanced with the opposite end of the spectrum: irrational, enraged hatred and scathing criticism calling everything bad and unreadable.
It’s all quite exhausting. All this noise can feel crushing.
Americans love talking about happiness. When you think about it, especially as a writer, having language such as “the pursuit of happiness” put into a government document is curious. My old mentor, Lee K. Abbott, would call that a “stout stake” that makes a narrative promise that you, as writer, better deliver. I’ll keep the cultural commentary to a minimum here, but when a nebulous and temporary state called “happiness” is part of your national heritage for nearly three hundred years, the tendency to avoid sadness, fear, embarrassment, pain, disquiet, vulnerability, and restlessness becomes normal. It’s why so many books by American writers are interior and focused on the individual. It’s why so many books by American writers (and the writing workshops where the foundation of these books are birthed) feel like therapy.
(see what happens when I’m asked a seemingly innocent question while I’m getting coffee?)
This mixture of disparate emotions, however, should not and cannot be shut off, not just because such complexity makes narrative art great, but because this complexity also makes us human, makes us feel alive. This complexity is integral to ourselves, and the people that enter and exit our lives. It’s beautiful and it’s joyous; it’s ugly and maddening and unavoidable.
The standard advice to a young writer still holds: write frequently and read widely. If he or she wants to write, hey, that will come naturally in time. But the reality is that there will be doubt and anxiety on a regular basis, and the trick is, I think, to recognize and accept this as normal. The key is to keep writing. Remind yourself: you can quit at any time. Right?
So why quit now? Exactly: you don’t.
Maybe it’s as simple as that.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Here Comes the Yeti! Snow Days at Missouri Review
By Michael Nye
Last week, snow started falling on central Missouri, beginning some time around 6 am on Tuesday, and didn’t let up until Wednesday morning. We received about eight inches of snow, and there are certainly areas of the country that have been hit with more. Back in 2011, right here in sunny Columbia, Missouri, we were hit with something crazy like seventeen inches of snow, an event that was appropriately named “Snowpocalypse.” With nasty falling temperatures and harsh winds, the University of Missouri was shut down on both Tuesday and Wednesday. Which means there was no week three of the internship class.
All four semesters I have taught the Internship in Publishing class, and I only teach the class in the spring, a class has been cancelled due to snow shutting down the university. Hey, it happens. With it being so early in the semester, this means we’re scrambling a bit when it comes to the reading. With a six week break from the previous semester, we have quite a backlog of submissions; nonetheless, I don’t want the staff to feel overwhelmed, particularly the new interns, who are still learning what type of manuscripts to pass for additional reads. Losing a Tuesday (which, along with our class, is when we pass manuscripts) early in the semester gives me heartburn.
This also leads me to another question: what do I write about week 3 of the publishing class when there was no class?
I assure you that you will have no interest in how I spent my two snow days, which involved, in some order, these things: writing my novel, shoveling my driveway, watching movies on Netflix, finished reading one novel and starting the next one, cooking, laundry, getting locked out of my house, couch naps, and reading articles about the Boston Celtics.
Anyway, I’m looking down the barrel of a “what should I write about?” moment that, I think, plagues writers all the time. Whether it’s a writer working on a deadline for a book or a newspaper, a student finishing a series of poems for workshop, a person just writing in his own four-corner room, or any of the other myriad writing situations I might come up with, this question permeates our mind. There is a feeling that there is one right, true and obvious answer to this question. And I think it can lead to some missteps in the quality of a story.
Writers, particularly ones that are unfamiliar with literary magazines, can sometimes strain to be “literary” in all sorts of ways. Plots about unhappiness, usually through a divorce or a separation of a low-level university job are “literary.” Characters who drink lots are “literary.” A story littered with five-dollar words is “literary.” Same too with the plotless story where nothing happens and nothing changes. This is all “literary.”
I’m not sure where all these misconceptions of literary writing comes from, but it certainly isn’t reflected in what good literary magazines actually publish. Strong, memorable stories break all sorts of rules and conventions. Sure, any of the items from the previous paragraph can be in good stories. But in the stories that struggle to be literary (and you can think of other tropes, too; it would be a long list), those characteristics are the entire story. There’s nothing else there. The stories that end up getting published are the ones that transcend those conventions, and explore the narrative and emotional depths of a story in a way the imitators cannot.
Thought over. Let’s close with the ending of one of my favorite short stories, James Joyce’s “The Dead” which just so happens to describe a snowfall. Here it is:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
What I Learned at The Missouri Review
Today’s Blog Post comes from Michael Piafsky.
I began working at The Missouri Review before I became a doctoral candidate at Mizzou. And I began reading for The Missouri Review before I joined The Missouri Review. It was June, and I had moved to Columbia a few weeks earlier. I was bored of unpacking and had exchanged a few tentative emails with someone a year ahead of me in the program, in which he mentioned that the next day there would be the first meeting of the summer semester at The Review at 2:00. I could come if I wanted to. I did want to, so I showed up at 10:00.
Very quickly I learned that you are ALWAYS welcome to read slush, even if you haven’t enrolled in the university yet and even if no one knows who you are.
I also learned that reading slush is loads better than unloading the last of your dishes.
After that, I spent exactly five years at The Review, and I never stopped learning. I learned more about writing at The Review than I did in workshops. After all, it’s one thing to know abstractly that your story needs to earn its keep immediately and doesn’t have three pages to allot to “generating the mood” and “doing foundational work” or the various other rationalizations for paragraphs we haven’t reconciled killing yet. It’s quite another to watch that learning play out as you churn through the slush pile. On my best days at The Review, when the Editors’ Prize was in high gear, I’d come in at 8 and leave at 3, and probably pass initial judgment over a hundred stories. If that type of experience doesn’t hammer home the importance of a killer first page, nothing will.
I learned how incredible it was to find a great story in the slush pile and think about how I was the first person at The Review to read it. We all read slush, whether we were editors or readers, and being first reader on a published story was something we celebrated at The Review. It was a badge of honor, and it came with its own measure of street cred (if you’ll allow that calling it street cred requires a certain talent with linguistic elasticity). I can remember reading a story on a Saturday and thinking all weekend about how I was going to pitch it in the staff meetings —who I was going to pass it to and how I was going to make my case. I can remember falling in love with one story so completely that I wanted to email the author just to let her know that I was going to fight for it and not to give it away to another journal before I had my chance.
I learned that most meetings are better with cake.
I learned that you never get bored of reading new fiction, and you get much better at talking about it. My first few months were a study in bimodal distribution; I either hated or loved every story with fierce intensity. That sensation ever entirely goes away; even a half-decade in, the great stories still generated an incredible emotional response, and the ones that just missed would generate enormous frustration as I’d turn to the last page and realize this was a relationship that wasn’t quite going to work out.
But I also learned how to marshal my forces, how to pitch a story in a meeting and how to save my bullets. In the beginning, after three consecutive weeks of hearing me tout story after story as “amazing!”, people started tuning me out. Meanwhile, my more tempered colleagues could, with a slight gesture of enthusiasm, work senior staff into a froth.
I learned how many people put more creativity into gussying themselves up in their cover letters than they did on their stories.
I learned that a creative cover letter, like a creative dialogue tag, is far more likely to do harm than good.
I learned how a great story introduces itself to you so perfectly that the cover letter becomes nothing more than contact info to tell the writer the great news.
I learned just how gratifying it was to track down our contest winner in Scotland to tell her that she’d won our Editor’s Prize. We’d first called her parents’ home in the States and worried about the time change. “Forget it,” her father assured us. “She’ll want to take this call.”
I learned what a strange double life it was to have my stories in slush piles across the country as I hoped for a sympathetic read, while I stared into The Review’s slush pile and willed my overworked self to sympathy in return.
I learned that it’s not as sweet to be integral in accepting someone else’s work for publication as it would be to have one of your stories accepted elsewhere, but that you sound like a better person if you pretend that it is.
I learned just how important the tech people were when the online contest submission site went down the night before the deadline. I also learned that our server was in Israel, though, I never learned why.
One of the perks of my job at TMR was that I got to go to the Associate Writing Programs conference. Since then I have learned that this is actually a punishment and a rather heinous one at that.
So, at AWP I learned just how frail we are as writers as I’d watch people steel themselves to approach our table to make tentative contact, thank us for a kind rejection, or berate us for our poor judgment in turning them away.
I also learned that people at AWP will always demand the most recent copy as their freebie. Despite how there has been no great technological advance in the short story field since Flaubert.
I also learned that people will look furtive while stuffing copies of the magazine into their bag, and that no assurance you can give will mitigate this expression.
Also at AWP, I learned just how respected Speer Morgan and The Missouri Review are nationwide. You learn this when the person who’s been peering over your shoulder for someone more important to talk to starts paying attention after learning you work at The Missouri Review.
I learned that Evelyn Somers is something of a national treasure when, year after year, grateful passersby would tell me how this woman had single-handedly saved their prose and how much they had learned just from watching her fix their sentences.
I also learned how easy it was to approach famous people to solicit them for interviews when you had the weight of The Review behind you. Most of these people, it turned out, were quite glad to talk about their work.
I also learned that my best interview was one wherein the subject was not the least bit glad to talk to me. This was something Gay Talese could have taught me had I known who he was at the time.
Then I learned that the absolute best way to prepare myself for competency as a creative nonfiction reader was to read every Best American ever published. This introduced me to Gay Talese. This was also a good way to learn just how far from competent I was as a creative nonfiction writer.
I learned how quickly a gimmick runs thin in a short story — no matter what the gimmick is. And I learned how a story that can be described adequately by its gimmick will elicit a sort of facial gesture from experienced readers. It’s the face of someone who knows that story will not find itself in our magazine, and that any good story cannot be described adequately at all and certainly not by its gimmick (unless the gimmick is a second-person novel about the Tarot deck.) Then every word of it is sheer brilliance.
What I didn’t learn until after was just how special The Review was, and how lucky I was to be a part of it. How the editors entrusted both undergraduates and graduate students with autonomy and responsibility and how all of us were encouraged to run with our ideas with confidence that we had the complete support of the letterhead staff to make The Review better.
And what I didn’t learn until later was how rare a gift that was.
Michael Piafsky is an associate professor and the director of creative writing at Spring Hill College in Alabama. The Montreal native earned an MA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and a PhD from the University of Missouri. A former editor of the Missouri Review, Piafsky has published fiction and nonfiction in journals such as Meridian, Epic, and Bar Stories, among others, and an excerpt from All the Happiness You Deserve, his first novel, was published by the Jabberwock Review and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Watch Michael Piafsky read from All the Happiness You Deserve at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance’s Parapalooza: http://bit.ly/1aJTyQy
Visit the author’s website: www.michaelpiafsky.com
True Miscellany: Inside The Winter Issue of TMR
By Michael Nye
For week two of the Internship in Publishing class, I asked all the students to read the winter issue (just released!) in its entirety. I didn’t give the students much guidance beyond that, such as how to read it, what to read for, particular themes to pay attention to, things of that nature. Early in the semester, I prefer not to prime my students to read for anything in particular so that there isn’t a tendency to approach the work with “What does Michael want me to think and say?” attitude, but a general curiosity about the text based on the student’s background and knowledge. After all, there’s plenty of time left in the semester for me to turn into a tyrant.
I suspect, though do not know, that many TMR readers do not sit down and read the entire issue from cover-to-cover in one week. I could be wrong. But as a subscriber to seven or eight literary magazines, and a few of the big national magazines, I know that I never read the whole thing in one sitting, with the exception of One Story, mostly because, of course, it’s just one story.
Reading an entire issue of The Missouri Review creates links between the various pieces that we publish. Speer’s foreword lays the groundwork for readers, and then, sprinkled throughout the issue, are explicit and implicit ideas. A reader may not see, or may disagree, with the thematic links we present, but that’s perfectly fine. Ten years ago, when TMR was redesigned, one of the central concepts of our design (and content) was that literature is a conversation, and that we should approach our material as something not just to be read, but to be discussed.
Our class discussion started with a quick look at the way the physical issue has change over thirty five years. I had copies from volume two, seven, twenty three and twenty four, and talked about why the various changes were made of the years. Then I turned it over to the students and asked what they thought of the content of the issue.
–We don’t predetermine theme. The theme for the issue starts to germinate in our mind somewhere around the time we have seventy percent of the issue filled. Speer starts thinking about his foreword, reviews the pieces we’ve accepted, and starts bouncing dozens of possibilities around. Sometimes, he instructs us to look for pieces that might fit a general theme idea he is thinking of and other times, the theme comes about after all the pieces for the issue have been selected.
–Apropos of nothing, the classes three favorite pieces were Jennifer Atkinson’s poetry, Nick Neely’s essay, and Kris Somerville’s art feature on Ruth St. Dennis.
–What about repeat contributors? This didn’t come up in class discussion, but our current issue features seven writers we have published in previous issues of TMR. One of the things literary journals aim to do is publish new voices. Is an issue with several previous contributors a failing on our part?
I’d argue it isn’t. I’m not sure a reader picks up our magazine and thinks “Writer X again?!” As a quarterly publication, we have plenty of room to publish authors throughout the year. We also are really only concerned about the work. It would be embarrassing to publish work by a writer (let’s call this hypothetical writer “Peyton Manning”) if the work isn’t good and is published solely because it was written by “Peyton Manning.” The quality of the manuscript is really all that matters to us. Cynics who get up in arms about this typically have never worked on a literary magazine.
But we do have to be careful. Perception is important. We have published several new voices in recent years and we want to remain an outlet for new writers. Every literary magazine wants to be an outlet for new writers. It’s part of our mission statement, and that will never change. We have shifted an accepted piece to a forthcoming issue (say, from spring to summer) in order to create balance. We also might push a piece to a future issue if the story is particularly long or short (length isn’t an issue for our poetry features) because we always try to bring the issue in at 192 pages.
–Don’t watch the Bradley Cooper movie The Words. It’s really, really awful. Just trust me on this one, all right?
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye